Clive Richards

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Clive Richards, MPhil PhD(RCA) FCSD FRSA, is a Visiting Professor to the Faculty of Arts and Architecture, University of Brighton. He has worked in a wide range of art and design fields, including commercial practice (technical illustration, information graphics, corporate identity, typography and artists' catalogue design), academic research, undergraduate and postgraduate teaching, PhD research supervision, higher education management plus professional body and international committee work.

A pioneer in British art school computer animation, he also developed the first computer-aided drafting package for making cutaway and exploded technical illustrations, work carried out in collaboration with the CAD Centre Cambridge.

His doctoral research at the Royal College of Art, London, on diagram design, formed the basis for further theoretical work in diagrammatics. A holder of various grants and listing numerous papers, books and chapters on his research he was Professor of Information Design at Coventry University, plus Associate Dean of Coventry School Art and Design, until 2009. As well as Director of Research for the School he also headed up its international developments team.

He was President of the Chartered Society Designers (CSD) from 2007 until 2009 and a member of the art and design sub-panel of the 2008 national UK universities Research Assessment Exercise (RAE).

Currently he is the President of the International Institute for Information Design (IIID) based in Vienna, a member of the Double Crown Club and the Art Workers' Guild of London. He runs his own design consultancy practice from his studio in Earlsdon, Coventry.

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Richards, Clive, Bussard, Nicolas D'Amour, Newman, Robert (2007): Weighing-up line weights: The value of differing line thicknesses in technical illustratio. In Information Design Journal, 15 (2) pp. 171-181.

Richards, Clive (2006): Drawing out information - lines of communication in technical illustration. In Information Design Journal Document Design, 14 (2) pp. 97-107.

Newman, R. M., Bussard, N., Richards, Clive (2002): Integrating interactive 3-D diagrams into hypermedia documentation. In: ACM 20th International Conference on Computer Documentation , 2002, . pp. 122-126.

Richards, Clive (1984). Diagrammatics: an investigation aimed at providing a theoretical framework for studying di. Royal College of Art, London, UK

Richards, Clive

5.11 Commentary by Clive Richards

If I may be permitted a graphically inspired metaphor Alan Blackwell provides us with a neat pen sketch of that extensive scene called 'visual representation' (Blackwell 2011).

"Visualisation has a lot more to offer than most people are aware of today" we are told by Robert Kosara at the end of his commentary (Kosara 2010) on Stephen Few's related article on 'Data visualisation for human perception' (Few 2010). Korsara is right, and Blackwell maps out the broad territory in which many of these visualisation offerings may be located. In this commentary I offer a few observations on some prominent features in that landscape: dynamics, picturing, semiotics and metaphor.


Ben Shneiderman's critique of Blackwell's piece points to a lack of attention to "... additional questions of changing state visualisations and interaction dynamics" (Shneiderman 2010). Indeed the possibilities offered by these additional questions present some exciting challenges for interaction designers - opportunities to create novel and effective combinations of visual with other sensory and motor experiences in dynamic operational contexts. Shneiderman suggests that: "These changing and interactive demands on designers invite creative expressions that are very different from design for static signs, printed diagrams, or interpretive art". This may be so up to a point, but here Shneinderman and I part company a little. The focus of Blackwell's essay is properly on the visual representation side of facilities available to interaction designers, and in that context he is quite right to give prominence to highly successful but static visual representation precedents, and also to point out the various specialist fields of endeavour in which they have been developed. Some of these representational approaches have histories reaching back thousands of years and are deeply embedded within our culture. It would be foolhardy to disregard conventions established in, say, the print domain, and to try to re-invent everything afresh for the screen, even if this were a practical proposition. Others have made arguments to support looking to historical precedents. For example Michael Twyman has pointed out that when considering typographic cueing and "... the problems of the electronic age ... we have much to learn from the manuscript age" (Twyman 1987, p5). He proposes that studying the early scribes' use of colour, spacing and other graphical devices can usefully inform the design of today's screen-based texts. And as Blackwell points out in his opening section on 'Typography and text' "most information on computer screen is still presented as text".

It is also sometimes assumed that the pictorial representation of a dynamic process is best presented dynamically. However it can be argued that the comic book convention of using a sequence of static frames is sometimes superior for focusing the viewer's attention on the critical events in a process, rather than using an animated sequence in which key moments may be missed. This is of course not to deny the immense value of the moving and interactive visual image in the right context. The Gapminder charts are a case in point ( Blackwell usefully includes one of these, but as a static presentation. These diagrams come to life and really tell their story through the clustering of balloons that inflate or deflate as they move about the screen when driven through simulated periods of time.

While designing a tool for engineers to learn about the operation and maintenance of an oil system for an aircraft jet engine, Detlev Fischer devised a series of interactive animations, called 'Cinegrams' to display in diagrammatic form various operating procedures (Fischer and Richards 1995). He used the cinematic techniques of time compression and expansion in one animated sequence to show how the slow accumulation of debris in an oil filter, over an extended period of time, would eventually create a blockage to the oil flow and trigger the opening of a by-pass device in split seconds. Notwithstanding my earlier comment about the potential superiority of the comic strip genre for displaying some time dependant processes this particular Cinegram proved very instructive for the targeted users. There are many other examples one could cite where dynamic picturing of this sort has been deployed to similarly good effect in interactive environments.


Shneinderman also comments that: "Blackwell's approach might be enriched by more discussion of visual representation in functional product design tied to meaningful tasks". An area I have worked in is the pictorial representation of engineering assemblies to show that which is normally hidden from view. Techniques to do this on the printed page include 'ghosting' (making occluding parts appear as if transparent), 'exploding' (showing components separately, set out in dis-assembly order along an axis) and cutting away (taking a slice out of an outer shell to reveal mechanisms beneath). All these three-dimensional picturing techniques were used by, if not actually invented by, Leonardo Da Vinci (Richards 2006). All could be enhanced by interactive viewer control - an area of further fruitful exploration for picturing purposes in technical documentation contexts.

Blackwell's section on 'Pictures' warns us that when considering picturing options to avoid the "resemblance fallacy" pointing out the role that convention plays, even in so called photo-realistic images. He also points out that viewers can be distracted from the message by incidental information in 'realistic' pictures. From my own work in the field I know that technical illustrators' synoptic black and white outline depictions are regarded as best for drawing the viewer's attention to the key features of a pictorial representation. Research in this area has shown that when using linear perspective type drawings the appropriate deployment of lines of varying 'weight', rather than of a single thickness, can have a significant effect on viewers' levels of understanding about what is depicted (Richards, Bussard and Newman 2007). This work was done specifically to determine an 'easy to read' visual representational style when manipulating on the screen images of CAD objects. The most effective convention was shown to be: thin lines for edges where both planes forming the edge are visible and thicker lines for edges where only one plane is visible - that is where an outline edge forms a kind of horizon to the object.

These line thickness conventions appear on the face of it to have little to do with how we normally perceive the world, and Blackwell tells us that: "A good pictorial representation need not simulate visual experience any more than a good painting of a unicorn need resemble an actual unicorn". And some particular representations of unicorns can aid our understanding of how to use semiotic theory to figure out how pictures may be interpreted and, importantly, sometimes misunderstood - as I shall describe in the following.


Blackwell mentions semiotics, almost in passing, however it can help unravel some of the complexities of visual representation. Evelyn Goldsmith uses a Charles Addams cartoon to explain the relevance of the 'syntactic', 'semantic' and 'pragmatic' levels of semiotic analysis when applied to pictures (Goldsmith 1978). The cartoon in question, like many of those by Charles Addams, has no caption. It shows two unicorns standing on a small island in the pouring rain forlornly watching the Ark sailing away into the distance. Goldsmith suggests that most viewers will have little trouble in interpreting the overlapping elements in the scene, for example that one unicorn is standing behind the other, nor any difficulty understanding that the texture gradient of the sea stands for a receding horizontal plane. These represent the syntactic level of interpretation. Most adults will correctly identify the various components of the picture at the semantic level, however Goldsmith proposes that a young child might mistake the unicorns for horses and be happy with 'boat' for the Ark. But at the pragmatic level of interpretation, unless a viewer of the picture is aware of the story of Noah's Ark, the joke will be lost  - the connection will not be made between the scene depicted in the drawing and the scarcity of unicorns. This reinforces the point that one should not assume that the understanding of pictures is straightforward. There is much more to it than a simple matter or recognition. This is especially the case when metaphor is involved in visual representation.


Blackwell's section on 'Visual metaphor' is essentially a critique of the use of "theories of visual metaphor" as an "approach to explaining the conventional Mackintosh/Windows 'desktop' ". His is a convincing argument but there is much more which may be said about the use of visual metaphor - especially to show that which otherwise cannot be pictured. In fact most diagrams employ a kind of spatial metaphor when not depicting physical arrangements, for example when using the branches of a tree to represent relations within a family (Richards 2002). The capability to represent the invisible is the great strength of the visual metaphor, but there are dangers, and here I refer back to semiotics and particularly the pragmatic level of analysis. One needs to know the story to get the picture.

In our parental home, one of the many books much loved by my two brothers and me, was The Practical Encyclopaedia for Children (Odhams circa 1948). In it a double page spread illustration shows the possible evolutionary phases of the elephant. These are depicted as a procession of animals in a primordial swamp cum jungle setting. Starting with a tiny fish and passing to a small aquatic creature climbing out of the water onto the bank the procession progresses on through eight phases of transformation, including the Moeritherium and the Paleomatodon, finishing up with the land-based giant of today's African Elephant. Recently one of my brothers confessed to me that through studying this graphical diorama he had believed as a child that the elephant had a life cycle akin to that of a frog. He had understood that the procession was a metaphor for time. He had just got the duration wrong - by several orders of magnitude. He also hadn't understood that each separate depiction was of a different animal. He had used the arguably more sophisticated concept that it was the same animal at different times and stages in its individual development.

Please forgive the cliché if I say that this anecdote clearly illustrates that there can be more to looking at a picture than meets the eye? Blackwell's essay provides some useful pointers for exploring the possibilities of this fascinating territory of picturing and visual representation in general.   


  • Blackwell A 2011 'Visual representation'
  • Few S 2010 'Data visualisation for human perception'
  • Fischer D and Richards CJ 1995 'The presentation of time in interactive animated systems diagrams' In: Earnshaw RA and Vince JA (eds) Multimedia Systems and Applications London: Academic Press Ltd (pp141 - 159). ISBN 0-12-227740-6
  • Goldsmith E 1978 An analysis of the elements affecting comprehensibility of illustrations intended as supportive of textPhD thesis (CNAA) Brighton Polytechnic
  • Korsa R 2010 'Commentary on Stephen Few's article: Data visualisation for human perception'
    Odhams c. 1949 The practical encyclopaedia for children (pp 194 - 195)
  • Richards CJ 2002 'The fundamental design variables of diagramming' In: Oliver P, Anderson M and Meyer B (eds) Diagrammatic representation and reasoning London: Springer Verlag (pp 85 - 102) ISBN 1-85233-242-5
  • Richards CJ 2006 'Drawing out information - lines of communication in technical illustration' Information Design Journal 14 (2) 93 - 107
  • Richards CJ, Bussard N, Newman R 2007 'Weighing up line weights: the value of differing line thicknesses in technical illustrations' Information Design Journal 15 (2) 171 - 181
  • Shneiderman B 2011 'Commentary on Alan Blackwell's article: Visual representation'
  • Twyman M 1982 'The graphic representation of language' Information Design Journal 3 (1) 2 - 22

Richards, Clive (2002): The Fundamental Design Variables of Diagramming. In: "Diagrammatic Representation and Reasoning" .

Fischer, Detlev, Richards, Clive (1995): The presentation of time in interactive animated systems diagrams. In: "Multimedia systems & applications" Academic Press .